Democrats Debate: Candidates Talk Marijuana, Right to Work and Reform

By Brian Carlton

March 17, 2021

Four Virginia Democrats presented their platforms during Tuesday night’s forum.

RICHMOND- They agreed on many points during the night, but four of Virginia’s Democratic candidates for governor went into Tuesday’s debate wanting to highlight their differences. With former governor Terry McAuliffe declining to attend, the remaining candidates outlined their platforms on a variety of issues, from criminal justice reform to economics. 

That was, in some ways, what made this debate different. Virginia Democrats often provided specific examples rather than campaign speeches. At times, some candidates offered more detailed answers than others, highlighting what each one was passionate about. But aside from a couple jabs thrown at McAuliffe for being absent, candidates focused on issues, rather than attacks. 

What They All Agreed On

Some issues, however, brought no argument. In a debate often focused on change, Democrats outlined eight changes they wanted to see. All four candidates agreed that: 

  • Marijuana should be legalized
  • Conviction records should be expunged for those jailed due to marijuana use
  • Qualified immunity should be eliminated
  • Virginia needs campaign finance reform 
  • They won’t take a penny from Dominion 
  • Virginia needs ranked choice voting
  • The state doesn’t need any new fossil fuel projects 
  • General Assembly seats should be full-time jobs

On the topic of marijuana legalization, all four want Gov. Ralph Northam to amend the bill sitting on his desk. Currently, legalization will happen Jan. 1, 2024. Or at least it’s supposed to. We get into the issues surrounding that here

All four candidates want to see Northam amend the bill so legalization could take effect July 1 of this year. Three of the four at the debate, including Del. Lee Carter, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, have all filed bills to legalize marijuana and shape that legalization in recent years. 

And then there’s campaign finance reform. All four agreed corporate donations should be banned. Carroll Foy pointed out that two of our last three governors, Bob McDonnell and McAuliffe, have been investigated by the FBI for finance concerns.

While the group agreed not to take any money from Dominion, Carter took it a step further, pointing out he hasn’t and won’t take funds from any for-profit corporation. Out of the rest, only McClellan received funding from Dominion in her career. From 2011 to 2018, the company gave $38,424 to her campaign. However, she hasn’t received anything from them since.

Almost Unanimous For Virginia Democrats?

There was one question that almost made the unanimous list. Carter, Carroll Foy and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax said they would repeal Virginia’s right to work law. Sen. McClellan would not.

“People talk about right to work, but in fact it’s often a right to work for less,” Fairfax said. “And a right to take advantage of the collective bargaining, increased pay and benefits that our union brothers and sisters worked hard to achieve.”

Carter echoed that support. For the third straight year, he filed a bill to repeal ‘Right to Work’ in this past session, but it didn’t even get a vote in committee. In fact, despite being filed back in December, the bill never made it on the committee’s docket to be discussed in more than a month. 

Carroll Foy pointed to her record. When the pandemic started, Foy was among the first to ask Gov. Northam to order hazard pay for grocery workers and mask mandates on public transportation, to keep bus drivers safe.

McClellan meanwhile said she wouldn’t support any change that forced people to join a union.

“I will ensure all the barriers to collective bargaining and to unionizing are removed, so long as we continue to allow union membership to be a choice,” McClellan said. “I don’t believe employment should be conditioned on whether you are or aren’t a member of a union.”

Can Virginia Democrats Reform Criminal Justice?

Shifting gears, the question turned to criminal justice reform. How do you end mass incarceration in Virginia? What about overpolicing? 

If elected, Carter said he would use that authority to reduce the prison population by at least 30%, “even if I have to sign thousands of clemency petitions myself.” He also promised to work with the General Assembly to completely re-imagine the state’s public safety mechanism from the ground up, so that it doesn’t rely on mass incarceration. That means redirecting some funds to support social services, ending cash bail and getting rid of private prisons. 

“We can’t wait for the feds to act on this,” Carter said. “We have to fix this and do the hard work of thinking about what public safety looks like that’s not at the end of a gun barrel.” 

State Senator Jennifer McClellan also detailed a plan for reform. That includes repealing low level offenses that criminalize things like mental illness, poverty and childhood behavior. It also means getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing. McClellan also said the way we look at criminal justice needs to change. 

“If someone is incarcerated, we [need to] make sure that we are focused on rehabilitation and re-entry,” McClellan said. “Not warehousing [them]. Punishments must also be proportionate to the crimes. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we have so far to go.” 

Carroll Foy meanwhile said to see change happen, we need to restructure the system. 

“In Virginia you’re more likely to be held in jail pre-trial because of our cash bail system if you are black, poor and innocent than if you’re white, wealthy and guilty,” Foy said. “That is a for-profit system we have to bring to its knees.” 

We couldn’t hear Fairfax’s answer, as he had internet issues.

How Do You Solve The Housing Issue?

The night’s final key item involved housing in Virginia. How do you cut down on homelessness, while also preventing more evictions once the moratorium is lifted?

For Carroll Foy, the solution involves wages. She talked about clients who struggled to find housing due to affordability and lack of funds. If you increase the minimum wage, she argued, then people could afford those houses and they wouldn’t sit empty. 

“I believe in housing for all,” Carroll Foy said. “Every Virginian deserves a safe place to rest their head.” 

That also happens, she said, by reforming eviction laws and strengthening the rights of tenants. 

For Fairfax, this isn’t a new discussion. The lieutenant governor worked on the issue when he took office in 2018. He set up a series of roundtable discussions across the state and worked with the governor’s office to put millions of dollars into affordable housing. Fairfax said he would continue that work as governor.

McClellan, meanwhile, sees progress but knows more work is needed. That means making the evictions process more tenant friendly, so that people have enough time to pay. It means putting more money into the affordable housing trust fund and refining the tenants’ bill of rights that she got passed in the last General Assembly session. 

Carter, meanwhile, saw things differently. 

“We don’t have a supply problem,” Carter said. “We have more empty houses than homeless people.” 

The issue, he argued, is that housing is being used as a commodity. 

“We need to re-evaluate our policy to make sure that housing is actually serving the human need for shelter and not just being used as a vehicle for massive corporations to make money,” Carter said. 

That means rent control. That means good cause eviction laws, cooperative ownership of multi-family dwellings and a public option for housing. It also means creating a vacancy tax on landlords who keep some of their homeless off the market to drive up the price of others. 

“We’ve got to crack down on this speculative behavior and make sure we treat housing as a human right, not a commodity,” Carter said.

What’s Next?

While McAuliffe, who has the lead in the most recent poll, didn’t show up Tuesday, his team says he’s committed to appear at four televised debates organized by the Democratic Party of Virginia. The other four candidates have also agreed to take part in those four. The first one will be held April 6.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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